The Strange Case of Reuben Lemon: Scotts Bluff County’s Century-Old Murder Cold Case

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Western Nebraska MysteriesThe Strange Case of Reuben Lemon: Scotts Bluff County's Century-Old Murder Cold...

| WYOBRASKA HISTORY |


Halloween is almost upon us and with that, we ask Wyobraska Magazine Expeditions Photojournalist Kathrine ‘Kat’ Rupe to do a little research into haunted locations in WyoBraska. What she stumbled upon intrigued and shocked us; and we’re pretty sure it will you as well. Learn the story of one of the oldest unsolved murder cases in Scotts Bluff County history.

In the 1920s and 30s, Scottsbluff and Gering Nebraska were at their peak in population offering businessmen and investors opportunities fit for a King as agriculture, alcohol, and sex blossomed into a new economy. During this time corruption and political motivation were rampant, and the law often looked the other way if you were unfortunate enough to possess skin a shade other than white.


“AGED NEGRO FOUND SHOT TO DEATH IN GERING RESIDENCE”

“Reuben Lemons, negro, well-known in Gering as a self-asserted clairvoyant, a former slave and soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War, was found dead Tuesday morning in his home in east Gering, his head badly battered and a bullet wound over his heart. He was more than 80 years of age. Mystery surrounded the murder as county officials, after an all-day investigation, announced they were unable to uncover any definite clues. Lemons had been a resident of Gering for many years. For a considerable amount of time he was in the employ of Dr. F. B. Young, former Gering physician, but of recent years was said to have gained a living partly by fortune telling and readings. He had a huge fund of information concerning the Civil War and post-war period. He was unmarried.”

Western Nebraska Observer Thursday, January 26th, 1933

| THE SON OF A SLAVE

Among the nearly 7000 interments at Gering’s West Lawn Cemetery, lies the unmarked grave of Reuben Lemon.

Lemon, also spelled Lemmon or Lemons by various sources, was born into slavery in Missouri on March 25th, 1855. His father was reportedly a member of the Cree tribe, and his mother was an African American slave, who, in the memoirs he was dictating to a newspaper reporter named E. C. Brown shortly before his murder, was sold while he was still a small child, and he never saw her again. At the time of his death, Lemon had been living in Gering for about ten years and had previously lived in eastern Nebraska, Arkansas, and Utah, where, according to the 1910 US Census, he worked as a cook at a mine boarding house in the now vanished town of Calls Fort, Utah. His life, like his death, is shrouded in mystery and tainted by accusations of bootlegging, communicating with the supernatural, and back alley medical procedures.

At 9:30 am on the 24th, a handyman named Henry Schwindt arrived at 1975 5th Street in Gering, the home of 80-year-old Reuben Lemon, to perform some carpentry work that the pair had agreed upon the day prior. Instead of a day of work, though, Schwindt stepped into a scene from a nightmare.

Reuben Lemon lay slumped on the floor against a chair near his front door, dressed only in his underwear. The elderly man’s head sported at least three jagged wounds, and a bullet hole was visible in his chest, directly over his heart. Blood splattered the walls, ceiling, and floor, turning the front room of the modest six-room house into an abattoir. A one-pound ball peen hammer with a broken handle lay on the floor next to the corpse. Upon seeing the body of his employer, a horrified Schwindt stumbled from the house and called for help.

At noon, E. E. Clark, Deputy State Sheriff, received a phone call from the Scotts Bluff County District Attorney, asking for assistance as soon as possible in a murder case. Finally reaching the site at 3 pm, Clark stepped into the horrific scene. Lemon’s body had been taken to the local morgue for a post-mortem exam, but the crime scene was still relatively intact.

The interior of the home was undisturbed and showed no signs of being ransacked or searched. Pools of blood in the room where the murder had taken place were unmarred by footprints, indicating to the investigator that Lemon’s killer or killers had not ventured into the home after the vicious attack on the elderly man. Eighteen dollars, a considerable sum of money during the Great Depression, was found by Clark in Lemon’s trouser pocket, which lay on a chair near his bed.

Clark soon discovered that a light mounted on a telephone pole outside of the home, which at first glance appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary street light, had actually been installed at Lemon’s request, and was operated by a switch located on the pole. Lemon had an agreement with a man by the name of Herron, who worked at the nearby Great Western Sugar Factory, to turn off the light each morning as Herron walked by the house on his way to work. On the morning of the 24th, however, Herron observed that the light was already turned off. Thinking nothing of it, Herron continued on his way. Neighbors reported hearing gunshots and seeing a black Model T truck parked near Lemon’s house at around 12:30 am on the night of the murder, but the vehicle and its driver were never found.

An autopsy was finally performed at 7:30 pm by Drs. Weyrens and Gentry, and was attended by Officer Clark. Lemon was found to have wounds over his right eye, on the top of his head on the right side, and on the back of his head, caused beyond the shadow of a doubt by the hammer that had been found next to his body. The cause of death, however, was the .38 caliber slug that the doctors found trapped between Rueben’s corpse and his long underwear. The bullet had entered his left breast at an angle from above and to the left, grazed the first rib, and then traveled at a downward angle to the right through Reuben’s body, slicing through his aorta and lungs, and exiting near the fifth rib on the right side.

Doctor Gentry’s opinion was that Reuben Lemon had been murdered between five and eight hours before being discovered by his now traumatized handyman.

Prohs Funeral Home, now the Gering Memorial Chapel, buried Lemon in Addition 1, Space 6 of West Lawn Cemetery. He was reported by the Gering Courier newspaper to have had a sister and niece still living, but neither of them arrived in Gering for the funeral, which was paid for and attended by other black members of the community.

Several suspects began to emerge in the days following the murder, along with possible motives. At a dance held in Scottsbluff on January 19th, a known prostitute named Goldie Cain was overheard by witnesses drunkenly proclaiming that she knew where an old man living near Scottsbluff was in possession of five hundred dollars and that she and her companions, named Art and Happy, were going to “roll him” in the next five days. Goldie Cain, who had previously spent eight months in an Iowa workhouse after being convicted of bootlegging, was never arrested for the crime, even though her bloodstained coat was seized by the police and turned over to a pathologist for examination. Art and Happy, if they ever really existed, were never located.

Two men, George Newton and Bill Richardson, former neighbors of Lemon who had previously served time in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for burglary and theft, were brought in for questioning and were found to have been in jail in Sioux City, Iowa on January 23rd, which eliminated them as suspects.

The investigation led all the way from Scottsbluff to Bayard and then North Platte, interviewing the irate husbands of women who had visited Reuben Lemon, who had a reputation of not only a fortune teller, witch doctor, and bootlegger, but also an abortionist, having spent many years employed by Dr. F. B. Young, a former physician in Gering. Lemon was also rumored to be too friendly with the young German-Russian and Mexican boys who lived in the area, though this was never verified.

In all, at least seventy-five people were interviewed and investigated, and not a single reliable clue turned up. The pistol identified as the murder weapon was never recovered, and it was discovered that the hammer found at the crime scene belonged to Lemon himself, suggesting that the elderly man had carried it to the door with him as protection on the night of the murder, only to have it taken away and used against him.

By March of 1934, E. E. Clark had submitted a final special report, eliminating the last of his suspects, and the case went cold.

To this day, the brutal murder of Reuben Lemon remains one of Gering’s unsolved mysteries, and sadly, his final resting place has been obscured by time and the elements and, until a new marker plate is created or a headstone is installed, can only be found with the assistance of West Lawn Cemetery’s hard-working employees and a metal detector.


| CREDITS & RESEARCH

More information:

Story by: Kathrine Rupe
Reference: Western Nebraska Observer



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